Sunday, December 2, 2007

Which text?, part 2

In the previous post, I called attention to the thesis of Brevard Childs:  "that the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is the vehicle both for recovering and for understanding the canonical text of the Old Testament."1

Pace Childs, I argued that partisan considerations may have been at work in the standardization of the Masoretic text. In this post I will consider a specific verse, Amos 9:12, in light of the question at issue.

Variant texts of Amos 9:12

Amos 9:11 begins, "In that day I  [YHWH] will raise up the booth of David that is fallen"2:

Masoretic Septuagint Acts 15:17-18
… that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name," declares the Lord who does this. … so that the remnant of men shall seek,* and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, says the Lord, who shall do these things.
*several manuscripts supply objects for the verb:  e.g., "shall seek Me".
… that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name," says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.

Surely Christians must take note of the correspondence between Acts 15:17 and the Septuagint translation of Amos 9:12, and inquire into its significance.

James's appeal to Amos 9:12

The issue at stake in Acts 15 concerned the place of the Gentiles in salvation history:  i.e., whether Gentile converts could be added to the Christian community without first agreeing to obey the Law of Moses. James, as the head of the church in Jerusalem, had to persuade a constituency that was vehemently pro Moses.

If Luke's account is historical, and James appealed to Amos 9:12, he must have known a Hebrew text that read, "… that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name." The Septuagint wouldn't have been authoritative enough to satisfy James's Hebrew-speaking constituency. And a text corresponding to the Masoretic text ("… that [Israel] may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name") would not have served James's purpose.

Indeed, we may presume that James would not have taken such a pro-Gentile position in the first place unless he had found it in scripture.

Minimal difference between the LXX and the MT

According to Michael Braun,3 only two minor emendations are required to arrive at a Hebrew text which corresponds to the Septuagint:
  • To change Edom into adam (= man) requires no emendation. "In earlier MSS. the former word would have appeared without pointing, so that in the non-vocalized texts with which the Masoretes worked there would have been no difference between the words."

  • To modify yyrsw ("they [Israel] shall possess") into ydrsw ("they [the nations] shall seek"), one consonant must be emended. It is not an unlikely variant:  "In the history of the transmission of the OT there was a time when d and y were virtually indistinguishable."

  • To supply an object for the verb seek ("they shall seek" — who, or what?), "the sign of the accusative in the MT (’t) [could] be emended to ’l, an ancient Semitic title for God." Braun adds, "Dahood suggests that the Masoretes would at times confuse ’l for ’t, failing to recognize the older, shortened title for God."
In sum, the difference between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint is very slight. The question is, which text is original? "They shall possess the remnant of Edom"? Or "the remnant of mankind shall seek the Lord"?

Jewish opposition to Christian proof texts

Childs would evidently give the benefit of the doubt to the Masoretic Text, and assume the Septuagint to be secondary. It seems to me that Christians must be a little more cynical about the Masoretes' motives.

Braun calls attention to a targum:4
Tg. Jonathan shows that there was considerable theological difficulty with Amos 9:11-12 in the Jewish community. It reads:  "So that they shall possess the remnant of Edom and of all the peoples, even the house of Israel, upon whom my name has been called." The flagrant gloss, "even the house of Israel," was certainly added to exclude the Gentiles from any hope of salvation.
The Targum says that God's name has been called upon the house of Israel:  not upon the Gentiles, per Amos 9:12. Here (and elsewhere) we have evidence of Jewish antipathy toward a Christian appeal to scripture.

Such antipathy is perfectly understandable, given the historical circumstances (the desperate position Jews were in after the events of 70 C.E.). Regardless, we must recognize the severe pressure the Masoretes were under to protect the faith against threats, particularly threats emerging from within the Jewish community.

Christianity was just such a threat.


I will respond here to some of the comments that were made on my previous post.
  • Two readers (both much more knowledgeable than I am) indicated that it is inaccurate to speak of "the" Septuagint. D.R. Driver commented, "It's surprising how much of the literature still refers to this unproblematically, whereas it is a highly eclectic text."

    Point taken. And it suggests that the title of my first post is misleading:  we are not choosing between the Masoretic text and a similarly standardized Septuagint text.

    Nonetheless, the observation doesn't obviate the point that I wanted to make. I set out to problematize Childs's emphatic preference for the Masoretic text, and I believe I have successfully done so.

    It would be a mistake to assume that the Masoretes had pure motives as they went about standardizing the Hebrew text. Variant Greek manuscripts (however ecclectic) may testify to an original text that was distorted by the Masoretes:  perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps as part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the claims of Christianity.

  • The same readers objected to one of my statements in the first post:  "… at many points the Septuagint is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text." I concede that the statement is a generalization that I cannot justify.

    On the other hand, Tim pointed to a couple of important verses (Is. 7:14 and Ps. 22:16) in support of my contention. Allow me to restate my position more cautiously:  in some cases, the Greek text(s) is more open to a Christian reading than the Masoretic text.

  • John stakes out an intriguing position. In cases where the Greek text differs significantly from the Masoretic text (e.g. Jeremiah), John maintains that exegetes should explore both versions. John comments:
    I think a return to the older pre-Reformation and pre-Tridentine tradition is in order, in which the outer limits of the canon and the precise contents of the text of the component books were up for grabs. Why not return to allowing a degree of fluidity on these matters?
    This is certainly an acceptable proposal to me.

    The title of my previous post set up a false dichotomy between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, as if we had to choose either one or the other. I suppose the title was poorly chosen. I never intended to argue that Christians should prefer the Septuagint to the Masoretic text in every case. (Nor did I state such a thing anywhere in the post.)
My thesis ought not to be controversial. I submit that any responsible interpreter must take all variant readings into account. (Certainly that is the practice among New Testament scholars.)

I understand why exegetes begin with the text in the original language, and only secondarily turn their attention to versions. However — and here is where I part company with Childs — there are extenuating circumstances to consider with respect to the Masoretic text. The Masoretes were under extraordinary pressure to undermine any distinctively Christian reading of scripture.

Therefore:  (a) when an Old Testament passage is taken up in the New Testament, and used as a proof text for a distinctively Christian doctrine; and (b) there is a significant difference between the Masoretic text and the New Testament quote (or allusion); then (c) the Christian interpreter must seriously consider the possibility that the Masoretic text is corrupt.

Amos 9:12 is an outstanding illustration of my point.

If Luke's account of the so-called Jerusalem council is not historical, then we cannot trace the apologetic use of Amos 9:12 back to James. In that case, it is Luke himself who appeals to Amos 9:12 as a proof text.

Even so, the Christian interpreter must seriously consider the possibility that the Masoretic text of Amos 9:12 is corrupt.

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1Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. Fortress Press, 1979, p. 97.

2Scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

The English translation of the Septuagint text comes from Michael A. Braun, "James' Use of Amos at the Jerusalem Council: Steps Toward a Possible Solution of the Textual and Theological Problems", JETS 20 (June 1977) 113-121 (translation of LXX at p. 115).

3Braun, ibid., p. 117.

4ibid., p. 116.